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Review – Fallout 3

posted on December 2nd, 2008 by christian

Writer’s note: At the time of this writing, Fallout 3 is a bit buggy on all platforms, and extra buggy on the PS3. I do not wish to neglect these issues, but for the time being they are not featured in the review. If the first patch for the game does not fix many of these issues, I will bring them up in a future piece, but I wish to avoid talking about bugs at the moment as it takes away some of the timelessness of a review. Fallout 2 was broken in many ways upon release, and no one talks about that these days.

We here at videolamer strive to provide timely reviews for major releases. The bad news is that juggling real life responsibilities and funding our own gaming budgets makes this a challenge. The good news is that each year the industry makes meeting this challenge less and less critical, since every year it becomes plagued with an even stronger case of Hype Fever.

There is almost no point in reading fresh reviews, because you know the general opinion on anything with a 90 average or better is going to drop dramatically four months later. In the case of Fallout 3, this hasn’t happened yet, but allow us to get the ball rolling.

Bethesda has managed to make a fine game, one that “feels” more like Fallout than many of us expected. Of course, that means it isn’t precisely Fallout, which causes the game to both succeed and fail in various ways. In addition, your enjoyment on a whole depends greatly on a few crucial factors, one being how long you choose to play. Oblivion with guns? Not quite, but it may at least cause some flashbacks.

First, let us dispense with the comparisons to the old games. Bethesda took the original stat system and made some major tweaks. Base stats like Strength and Perception affect your performance with the various skills and weapons differently than they once did, while the list of skills itself has been cut down. I can understand eliminating something like Outdoorsman, but I am sad to see the loss of Gambling (which was great to exploit for money), First Aid (which could be used for a quick and free heal), and Steal (pickpocketing is now determined by Sneak, which would have been a worthless trait on its own, since stealth movement is rarely worth it).

The diminished number of skills means there is less worry about spreading your points out, though this in turn changes how tagging works. A tagged skill now gives you a mere 15 extra points at the start, and will not improve at twice the normal rate. Traits and Perks are now condensed into just Perks, which are given once per level (none of them are detrimental). What devastating effect does this have on the game? Not much, to be honest.

The bottom line is that many of the Perks give you bonus skill points, the rest being more unique character enhancements like the ones found in the past games. It is likely you will spend most of your Perks choosing the former, thus making your selection of the latter about on par with Fallout 1 and 2. My only issues with the new system are that weapon skills get a bit too powerful by the time they’re in the 50’s, and that some of the Perks are cute but unnecessary. When there’s no need to drink irradiated water, having a resistance to it is only worthwhile if you are a hardcore roleplayer.

More drastic than the skill changes is the new combat system. As you may have heard by now, Fallout 3 uses realtime combat, salvaging a few ideas from the old turn based system and putting them into the V.A.T.S. targeting mode. V.A.T.S. allows you to spend action points in order to target enemy body parts, pausing the combat while you choose your attacks, and keeping you invincible while performing them. With enough Action Points, a high level character can wipe out a party of Raiders without having to fire a shot in real time. Using V.A.T.S. is fun (its cinematic camera makes kills quite visceral), but it is also crucial in order to strike powerful blows without being overwhelmed by enemy fire.

Fun as it is, V.A.T.S. is ultimately a parting gift, an attempt to inject a bit of old school flavor into a much weaker, newer combat sysetm. The turn based setup ensured that you thought out every choice you made, since you were at everyone else’s mercy once you spent your Action Points, and everything, including movement, cost points.

Meanwhile, combat in realtime allows you to move for free; the significance of this change cannot be overstated. Now you can find cover, reload from safety, and flank you enemy in order to get up close. Even the lowliest Vault Dweller with the starting pistol can lop off heads from three feet away, and getting this close in Fallout 3 is rarely a chore. There are only two situations I can think of in which the combat could prove lethal to the player: at the start, when ammo is low and quality weapons are nowhere, or if your character is completely unspecced for combat of any sort.

Such easy combat doesn’t necessarily lead to boredom, since kills are as satisfying as ever. What it does mean is that leveling up is a breeze. Combine frequent combat with Super Mutants with a healthy dose of lockpicking or computer hacking, and you may find yourself cruising to level 20. I reached it with roughly 20-25% of the major wasteland sites left unvisited, with barely any of the main quest finished. Increasing the difficulty doesn’t help either, since that causes you to gain even more experience. Exploring close to 100% of the wasteland is quite possible, but doing so is absolutely unnecessary. The quests aren’t necessary to level, and the sense of fear and wonder during exploration will fade when you’re essentially invincible.

I don’t like the idea of telling anyone how to play Fallout, since it is against the series’ ideals, but as soon as you get close to 20, drop what you’re doing and wrap up the main quest. Leave the unexplored regions for your next time through. It will enhance replayability, and will allow you to complete it in a reasonable amount of time.

And really, you do want to complete it in a reasonable amount of time. You can spend dozens of hours exploring Fallout 3 in a single playthrough. In a community that constantly prizes the hours-to-price ratio, we demand this, and from a developer like Bethesda, we expect it. But it isn’t the way it should be played. Fallout 1 was a very short game, and I know for a fact I did not see (or desire to see) every acre of Fallout 2 on my first run. Neither game was meant to be explored from head to toe, but were meant to be whatever you wanted them to be.

Fallout 3 is no different, it just seems so based on our own perceptions. In the last ten years RPGs have only reinforced the idea of playing them like OCD shut ins, and the rise of RPG-like leveling systems in other genres helped bolster this nasty habit. At the end of the day, Fallout 3 isn’t that much different from its ancestors. You can still slaughter on a town-wide scale. You can still pickpocket and lockpick like a fiend. The main quest can be completed rather quickly, and accommodates most character builds, while the sidequests allow you to pad out the length to your heart’s content. And if you find yourself constantly using Fast Travel, you aren’t acting any differently from how you did back in 1998.

If Fallout 3 falls short as a sequel, it is due to some elements being less potent. Combat, humor, and a lack of hobbies like gambling and child killing (if you’re evil) all take away some of the charm. But in the big picture, most of the game’s negatives can be translated from “this is a flaw” to “this is what Fallout did the last two times.” You can condemn it for not fixing these problems with the help of a decade’s worth of knowledge and technology. Or you can take off the rose tinted glasses and realize that maybe the series isn’t quite as good as you thought.

Yet another idea is that Fallout 1 and 2 really were amazing, because their strengths greatly overshadowed their weaknesses, and that Fallout 3 follows incredibly closely to their footsteps. Or maybe it falls short due to failed execution. I know what I feel (hint: I chose option 3), but this is Fallout. The choice is yours to make.

Depending on how you view the game, this is either a Game of the Year candidate, something very good, or an atrocious piece of shit. Playing off something said by Bethesda themselves, when you make the call, try to be nice. Or don’t.

Buy from Amazon: Fallout 3

10 Comments

  1. chris said on December 3, 2008:

    I must’ve really rushed the main quest, because I finished the game at around level 17. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and this isn’t the first time I’ve read reaching level 20 is no problem. I guess that means I have a lot more wasteland to explore next playthrough :)

    I have to agree, though – FO3’s flaws are much the same of the first two games, and I felt they tightened up the skill system a bit better. It may not be a perfect game, but I’d say it is a worthy successor. Hopefully Bethesda is planning on another sequel (I know, I know – endless sequels are bad, but is it bad to ask for sequels to good games?).

  2. Tyson said on December 3, 2008:

    I am glad you finally got your review kicked out because I have been waiting to reply to it. (^_^)

    First, I agree with you that the game is too easy. Once you hit higher levels combat becomes more of a motion than a challenge. It is still fun but it really gets a tad tedious after a while. I like the V.A.T.S system but found that after a while, I just wanted to kill the stuff to get done with combat and cared less and less how I did it. I wish there were some missions that included objectives like shooting a pistol out of a guy’s hand before he executed someone or something of that nature.

    The one thing that ticks me off about the game is the fact that once you finish the main quest, as it stands now, the game ends. Why on God’s green and sweet earth could they have not just let us play on with our original character rather than making us start over?!

    Other than the combat gripe and the game end gripe, I like Fallout 3. Some of the random encounters and odd events left me either laughing or befuddled with curious wonderment. The world of Fallout 3 is truly fun and extremely close to the feel of the original games. I played this and felt 18 again, seeing that is how old I was when I snagged my copy of Fallout 2 the night of its release.

    Things people should keep in mind, in my opinion. I have never experienced any of the bugs that other people have mentioned. No clue why, but my game runs as smooth as can be. It could make a difference on the 360 platform so I should mention I have a 360 Elite that was made in February of this year. I know the Xbox gets new hardware tweaks on almost a monthly basis now so I figured that was worth mentioning.

    Secondly, Bethesda looks to be committed to patching the game as needed. I have heard that in the new patch that is coming soon, the game ending when you finish the quest may be addressed. It also looks like (for 360 owners anyway) that downloadable content is rapidly approaching. I think the first bit comes out in January and it deals with fighting the Chinese forces out of Alaska. The second installment looks like players will be able to explore the Pittsburgh area in an episode called, The Pitt.

    If Bethesda is willing to keep the game fresh while they work on Fallout 4, I think we will be in for a real treat. The one thing that irks me is that the PC version of the game is getting a level editor and none of the other platforms are. :(

    Anywho, that is my two cents. Now maybe I will kick out my review of Little Big Planet. 😛

  3. christian said on December 3, 2008:

    Good comments all.

    In retrospect, I perhaps should have railed on the difficulty a bit more, as the only real way to increase it is to deliberately limiting your weapons skills. I might try that later, and don’t mind, but I can see others not liking that idea.

    Not being able to continue after the endgame is a bummer, but for it was not an idea that popped up. I didn’t want to continue after that, because I was too strong. For others that needed to level, that would not be a concern.

    The great thing about not exploring the whole game on the first play is that you learn that most areas can be traversed without much trouble. The mutants are in specific pockets outside of DC, and raiders aren’t too bad even from the start. Next time I play, I may hit Paradise Falls and Canterbury Commons right away, rather than waiting before I venture to the extreme parts of the map. I can’t wait to see how it changes the experience. At the very least it will promote some different character development.

    I did not make any mention either of the subway system in DC, which is a sticking point for many. I found that you don’t really need to explore them to the fullest, and once you have a couple of handy stops on your map, you can cut down your time in them.

  4. SpyderMayhem said on December 4, 2008:

    The thing that really strikes me about Fallout 3 is the meat of the world. I liked Oblivion, it was okay, but after a while the world seemed painfully soulless. Finding another town just meant that another town was on the map. The random dungeons all blended together. Elves were elves, orcs were orcs and demons were demons.

    Fallout 3 does not have this problem at all. Soul exudes from everything. Early on, you are given the opportunity to do a “please deliver this note” mission, the godawful staple of RPGS everywhere. I took the opportunity just hoping to find new areas of the map, not excited at all about the mission itself. And then the mission evolved into a horrible scene inside a town of few people stuck under a constant state of seige. And though there were few people in the town, they painted a clear picture of what life was like in their situation. Each resident turned to different coping methods, either a psychotic state of denial, heavy drinking or terrified isolationism. I connected with those four poor souls much more than I did with anyone in almost any other RPG. I wanted to finish the mission, I wanted to help them. And when I found their source of misery, I found myself connecting with them, too. Nothing was black and white. There were no demons to slay, just misguided people looking for answers to their awful situations on both sides of the fence.

    The Great Megaton Question did the same thing. No matter what path is chosen, a visible wake is left in the game world, one that can follow you for the rest of it.

    The NPCs exude soul, outside of the no-namers and some vendors. But even with the no-namers, they grow on you if you choose to travel the path of good, making Megaton actually feel like your character’s home.

    The non-main quest dungeons oftentimes have more thought put into them than the main quest ones. Experiencing a time-altering flashback in one of them struck me as a momentary, fantastic homage to System Shock 2, and totally fit the creepy vibe I was encountering inside. I got the reference, but it didn’t feel forced. It fit what I was experiencing.

    Everything helps paint the picture around you in the game, and the picture is beautiful because of its horridness. I think I actually like post-apocalyptic DC better than I like real DC.

  5. Tyson said on December 5, 2008:

    Ok…glad to know I was not the only one weirded out by Vault 106.

  6. SpyderMayhem said on December 5, 2008:

    Oh, I wasn’t referencing Vault 106. Oh no. If you find the place I found, you’ll know it.

  7. Rohit said on December 6, 2008:

    “Depending on how you view the game, this is either a Game of the Year candidate, something very good, or an atrocious piece of shit.”

    For me, neither. “Mediocre” is fitting.

  8. christian said on December 7, 2008:

    Yeah I should have added that as an option. Woops.

  9. TrueTallus said on December 11, 2008:

    Fair review, Christian. I’m at level 16 now, so I’m guessing that means I should stop screwing around in the wasteland and get going with the main quest (I only just talked to Threedog, which probably means I’ve got a ways to go). Just have to finish the wasteland survival guide first…

    I’ll pipe in with my two cents about the game as a whole and agree with SpyderMayhem that the thing that sticks out most to me is how surprisingly well realized and compelling non-essential people and areas are, particularly compared to Oblivion. 5 spooky caves out of 6 in Bethesda’s last effort felt like nameless monster hives, but most every location in the capitol wasteland oozes personality. The place SM mentioned (Jamie and the book, right?) is a great example of the care that’s gone into all sorts of things and places that (it seems like) few will ever see. I’ve always found that feeling of discovery and exploration to be one of the most rewarding things videogames have to offer, and Fallout 3 has delivered it constantly for 60 hours. I suppose that does make it harder to follow the advice to stop my wanderings and get on with the game- there’s still so much out there left to see.

    I guess an easy fix for the level cap problem would be a content pack with new perks including an “ability” to halve (or more) earned experience, perhaps with a stat increase as a tradeoff. That’s more a trait sort of arrangement, of course, but it seems like a reasonable solution to the problem.

  10. christian said on December 11, 2008:

    Well they just announced the first downloadable content, complete with an increased level cap. Sounds good, but PS3 owners are screwed sadly. I thought it was Bethesda not caring about the console, but then I remembered that they gave them the Oblivion expansion, so now I’m convinced that Microsoft moneyhats may have been involved.

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